The best is yet to come for Washington’s biotech industry

May 16, 2013 

With 70 Washington cities already home to 480 life sciences companies, our state’s role in developing cutting-edge medicines is something to be proud of.

The development of new drugs benefits Washington’s economy and patients around the world. But the Washington bioscience industry’s greatest opportunities — and challenges — are still ahead of us.

In the last few years, the number of new medicines in development has grown at an unprecedented rate. Provided that this flood of innovation isn’t disrupted by wrongheaded policy, the Evergreen state might soon play an enormous role in creating the next era of life-saving technologies.

Today, 5,400 pharmaceutical products are in clinical development, according to a new report from the economic consulting firm Analysis Group.

Seventy percent of these therapies are potential first-in-class products — medicines unlike any that have ever been available. Any one of these new treatments could save lives or make more costly medical interventions obsolete.

One group of Americans poised to benefit from this surge in drug research are those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

One in eight Americans over 65 and almost half of those over 85 were thought to suffer from alzheimer’s disease in 2012. Here in Washington, the Alzheimer’s Association expects incidence of the disease to increase by as much as 127 percent between 2000 and 2025.

Making matters worse, the cost of caring for Alzheimer’s patients is prohibitively high, and is expected to increase from $170 billion in 2012 to more than $1 trillion in 2050. A drug that could delay the onset of the illnesses could save Americans as much as $447 billion by 2050.

Right now, there are 125 Alzheimer’s treatments in the pharmaceutical pipeline — a fact that should inspire hope for patients with the disease as well as their families.

ProteoTech, the Kirkland biopharmaceutical company where I serve as CEO, is developing treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and rare diseases caused by misfolded amyloid proteins.

Seattle-based Cell Therapeutics is developing treatments for a variety of illnesses, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma and rheumatoid arthritis. Seattle Genetics, meanwhile, is testing therapies for conditions such as renal cell carcinoma and prostate cancer, among other diseases.

Those who suffer from rare diseases will likely be among those who benefit most from this deluge of new drug therapies. Rare or “orphan” diseases are conditions that affect fewer than 200,000 Americans. Because they are so uncommon, new treatments for these illnesses are often tough to come by. And yet, there are an impressive 1,795 projects designated for rare diseases in the pipeline.

But the mere fact that so many new medicines are in development is no guarantee they will reach patients. To ensure that biotech innovation continues to flourish, policymakers in Washington, D.C., should make every effort to support the industry. One way to start is by rejecting a proposal that would extend Medicaid-style price controls, or “rebates,” to the Medicare prescription drug program known as Part D.

Part D has proved successful at providing prescription medicines to American seniors at a considerably lower cost than originally projected. Imposing price controls on drugs sold through the program would needlessly introduce economic uncertainty into a biopharmaceutical sector that is on the cusp of historic breakthroughs.

In the long term, lawmakers would be wise to create an intellectual property system that ensures biotech innovators are able to recoup investments from successful inventions.

Creating a new drug therapy can cost over $1 billion and take anywhere from 10 to 15 years. If firms aren't confident that they can make back enormous upfront costs, the rate of medical innovation could slow tremendously.

But if our leaders in Washington, D.C., commit to protecting the life sciences industry, Washington state could find itself playing a leading role in the next great wave of medical discovery.

Steve Runnels is CEO of Seattle based ProteoTech Inc.

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